||USA vs Belgium
||Si Se Puede
WIN OR DIE. Image via a "spritegirl".
THE THEM: IT CAME FROM GERMINAL BEERSCHOT
Belgium is ludicrously talented for a nation with about the same population as Michigan, especially since this is not a country like Holland that has a rich history in the game. The Flyin' Waffles haven't so much as made either the World Cup or the European Championships since 2002. This has not stopped them from growing a generation of talent that has seen them rocket up the FIFA rankings and the bookies' odds. Pre-tourney, Belgium was fifth-favorites.
This is because the team is full of club-level stars. If you took each World Cup team and sold them on the transfer market right now, only Brazil would cost more.
Part of that is because Belgium is so danged young. The other part is because they are good.
This hasn't really shown in the group stages. The Waffles haven't scored before the 70th minute of any of their games despite fielding an all-star team in a group that was kindling waiting for a match.
There are two main reasons for this. One is the absence of striker Christian Benteke, who was injured just before the World Cup. Romelu Lukaku, his replacement, is a big name himself, but for whatever reason the team seems to lack je ne sais quoi when he's the main guy. The second is Belgium's lack of outside backs. Without overlapping runs from them, teams have been free to double up on Belgium's talented wingers.
There hasn't been a whole lot to learn about Belgium in two of their three games. They faced an Algeria team that was parking the bus virtually the whole time, and in the group finale against South Korea they played a heavily rotated lineup against what may have been the worst team in Brazil.
The Russia match is the closest thing to what will transpire against the US. Russia had half the possession and matched the Belgians in shots, finally ceding a goal in the 88th minute as the defenders on Eden Hazard faltered.
And then there was the friendly about a year ago in which Belgium thrashed the USA backline to a 4-2 win. The US started a back four of Beasley-Goodson-Gonzalez-Cameron in that one and Christian Benteke, who is out of this World Cup, was around to harrass the USA… but if they play anything like they did in that friendly it's going to be ugly.
GOALIE: Thibaut Courtois has spent the last three years as Atletico Madrid's goalie, during which time Madrid's stingy defense saw them win La Liga, shockingly. He's a strength.
Kompany and Vermalen (background) are doubtful, apparently
DEFENSE: Health issues abound. Anthony Vanden Borre, the Zangeif-lookin' mofo you may have noticed menacing his way around the field against South Korea, is out with an injury. While he was not a likely starter he may have been called on as a substitute if Belgium found themselves trailing; as a natural outside back he offers more going forward than their other options there.
That's because the rest of those options are center-backs. Like Germany, Belgium have entered this tournament determined to play a back four entirely consisting of naturally central players. In Belgium's case it's because they have a pile of excellent CBs and no fullbacks.
The first-choice central defenders are supposed to be Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermalen, but both of them are nursing injuries. Kompany has a groin issue, Vermalen a hamstring problem. Kompany missed the South Korea game, for whatever that means. It does sound like he's having issues that might make him a risk his coach may not want to take:
"Now we wait for the reaction, the training and the development day by day, but you saw the last game too – he tried hard in the last training session and had to stop after half an hour"
While I can't find a quote for this anywhere, Vermalen is said to be "doubtful" by anyone who has an article on Belgian health.
If one of those guys can't go, expect 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten to get a start. Van Buyten has played all of Belgium's games so far; at 6'6" he is obviously a force in the air, but he may be susceptible to getting outrun. He is a backup at Bayern Munich who's gotten about a dozen appearances per year for the last three. If both are out Zenit's Nicolas Lombaerts is likely to draw in. He's is a downgrade but only because Kompany has a claim to be the world's best central defender. He actually scored against the USA in 2011, but that USA lineup had Howard and Dempsey and no one else who will play tomorrow.
As previously mentioned, the outside backs are a bit of a weak point. Toby Alderwereld is the right back; he's a backup center back for Atletico Madrid. The left back could be Vermalen but is more likely to be Jan Vertonghen. Vertonghen had an up and down group stage, giving up the penalty that put Algeria up and scoring the lone goal against South Korea.
These guys aren't hoofers or anything…
these are talented technical footballers who impress at centre-back because of their ability to bring the ball out of defence, so they certainly aren’t useless clodhoppers. Amazingly, Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertonghan had almost identical footballing educations, raised at Germinal Beerschot before moving across the border to Ajax, where they were encouraged to play proactively in a high defensive line, and bring the ball out of defence intelligently.
…but while they can help the team get it out of the back, overlapping is not in the cards. Against Russia they barely approached the final third.
Belgium outside backs versus Russia
Belgian outside backs did get a bit more forward in the other games. If the US gets trapped in their own end with 30% of the possession or just flat sucks, fullbacks popping up on offense will be a symptom, not a cause.
MIDFIELD: Belgium is likely to field Alex Witsel in their version of the Beckerman role. Insert the usual "except he's paid a bucket of money by a major Euro club" here. In this case it's oil-gorged Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg. Witsel as described by Zonal Marking:
The primary holder is Axel Witsel, a strong, reliable and commanding midfielder that doesn’t advance into attack, but can move up the pitch to shut down opponents and leave space between the lines – as mentioned, the centre-backs deal with anyone in that zone.
The primary attacking midfielder will be Kevin De Bruyne, who shredded the US with through balls in that friendly and has easily been Belgium's most dangerous offensive player aside when allowed to play in the center of the field behind the striker. (He was anonymous as a right sided midfielder for about 60 minutes against Algeria, then became a huge threat as soon as substitutions shoved him into the middle.)
The third midfielder is in question. Marouane Fellaini made a major impact in the Algeria game as an out-and-out striker looking to pound things in with his head. He also scored a thundering header against the US a year ago. He was deployed against Russia in Belgium's most important group game, so it seems like he'd be the obvious pick. But then there's a calf injury that forced him off the field early yesterday. That would open the door for Mousa Dembele, except he's suffering from basically the same injury. The Ghana witch doctor may be on our side now.
Anyway, pick between these gentlemen:
They’re very different options – Fellaini is a physical destroyer who lacks guile on the ball, and Dembele is a peculiar, converted forward who is excellent at dribbling forward and evading challenges, but offers surprisingly little end product, preferring to keep his passing simple.
Fellaini's ability to hit things hard with his head gives him the edge, health being equal.
De Bruyne (left) and Lukaku (right) haven't been able to hook up so far
FORWARD: Belgium's been looking for something more impressive than what 21-year-old Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku's been able to offer so far, but they don't have great options. Kevin Mirallas is not a physical presence at 5'10" and Divock Origi is promising but just 19.
The wingers will be problems. Dries Mertens has consistently gotten into dangerous areas coming in from the right.
Mertens vs Russia
The area just inside the box towards the end line that Mertens got to repeatedly is assist central.
Premier League assist density, last three years
Mertens could not find the final ball against Russia, or his strikers weren't in a spot to run on to it. Mertens may just be a guy who isn't too good at making goals right now.
Even so the US will be playing with fire if they allow anything similar—Russia finally got bit when Eden Hazard, the left winger, got into that spot on the other side of the box and set up Origi for an easy slam home. Hazard is the most expensive and highest-regarded of any of Belgium's players—he was just named Chelsea's player of the year at the ripe old age of 23—but he hasn't had much impact with the national team. He's scored just six times in 47 caps and for much of the tournament he's been anonymous. That's where Belgium's lack of full-backs really shows. Defenses can overplay him and take him away. Expect the same from the US, with a defensive mid shaded to him.
Facing down another 4-3-3 with super dangerous wingers and question marks at outside back, expect a reprise of the Portugal game plan: a 4-5-1 with defensive responsibility on the flanks and Johnson bombing forward in an effort to exploit the lack of defense provided by the 4-3-3.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Beasley and Besler are locks if healthy; Johnson is going to start. There is a faint chance that he gets moved up into the midfield, allowing Yedlin or Chandler to start. Faint, though.
While Gonzalez had his best game for the US in a long time against Germany, Cameron is likely to return to the lineup. He provides more ability with the ball at his feet and the USA is going to need more possession than they did against Germany in a game they actually have to win. Also, his mobility will be a major asset against Hazard.
The US has a little bit of a luxury here, as they can afford to give their outside backs cover since Belgium won't be overlapping much. Job one for the US outside backs and midfielders is to keep Belgium's wingers out of the danger zone. If they cross, they cross. The US has decided to live and die with crosses by jamming the middle, and with Fellaini in question all the more reason to double down.
time for meep meep?
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Yedlin
Beckerman, Jones, Bradley are locks. Jones has been the USA's player of the tournament so far. This is the game Bradley's touch returns, I promise. Beckerman is going to be absolutely critical as he strives to prevent De Bruyne from playing Belgians in on Howard's goal. If he can quiet the Belgian #10 as the US reaches the quarters hell have cemented an unlikely place in USMNT lore.
The wing spots are in doubt. Davis was invisible and lifted early. Zusi's touch has been off and his service poor aside from the winner against Ghana; Bedoya seems like he's about ready to fall over and expire on the regular. Given what we've seen so far, Bedoya makes sense. He's the only guy who's given you two-way play on the left this tourney, and he's relatively fresh.
Aaand… this could be a spot where Klinsmann does something wacky like start Yedlin. It's easy to see Yedlin zooming past the Belgians' left back, whoever it is, into the assist zone he got to for the second against Portugal. Yedlin's speed will also help the US cover on Hazard. Meanwhile any individual defensive issues he has are not likely to come into play.
Zusi is of course a possibility.
What about Jozy? There have been reports he's doing some running, and Klinsmann has said he's "very optimistic" again:
‘‘We are very optimistic,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Every day is a big step forward with Jozy. It’s 11 days now and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.’’
"A part" is one thing. A start that might go 120 minutes with a still-lingering muscle injury is unlikely.
SUBS: If the US finds itself down they'll have to go for it, so expect some sort of midfielder-for-striker swap with Beckerman the most likely to go out since he offers the least going forward. This is a recording.
In a tie game pushing towards extra-time, the US might lift one of the wingers for Wondolowski, and then if things get very deep Dempsey will probably be cashed out, allowing Johannsson to enter.
If the US is fortunate enough to be protecting a lead, bringing in Gonzalez will make sense. Fellaini is truly terrifying in the air, and Belgium's response to Algeria suggests they will go 4-4-2 with Fellaini up front if they need to. Whether that's a straight swap for Cameron or something else I don't know, but whatever it is it should not be Gonzalez as some sort of ostrich defensive mid.
Algerian Djamel Haimoudi has drawn the game. He did the most recent African Cup of Nations final and a Confed Cup semi; so far in this tournament he's done the Costa Rica-England and Holland-Australia games.
The latter featured a pretty ridiculous PK call for Australia when a Holland defender's arm hit a cross that came from about two feet away and seemed an obvious case of ball-to-hand. On the other hand, Haumoudi has a number of opportunities to bite on dives in the box and passed.
I'd mention cards but at this point it's clear that the refs have been instructed to be very lenient with yellows. That's no doubt an attempt to keep suspensions down since yellows now clear after the quarters instead of the group stage.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
Good goddamn Bradley. This is not the Michael Bradley I know. The above is. Bradley's history with the US when allowed to forward is one of constant activity, through balls that come off, and late runs into the box that are a danger few outfits are adequately prepared for.
He hasn't exactly been terrible in this tournament, but he has not provided the attacking edge he has for the last four years. It's probably just bad luck and bad form at the wrong time, but it's unlikely the US wins this game without Bradley having a hand in a USA goal.
Fitness will be tested… again. The US got an extra day of rest compared to Germany, but unfortunately they are going up against a team that rested a bunch of guys in their final group match.
However, the tests will go both ways. Belgium has a number of guys in various states of injury. If Kompany or Vermalen or Fellaini play there's a chance that one of them has to use up a substitution early, and as the US learned four years ago you really do not want to have to use early substitutes in a game that can go 120 minutes.
Keep the ball, have the ball, keep and have the ball. The US has gotten boxed in by two of its three opponents so far, and while the situations they found themselves in (up a goal thirty seconds in and soon without Jozy; playing Germany needing to not lose by lots) lent themselves to that kind of cagey play, now it's win or die time.
This means keeping the dang ball and playing Belgium like an equal. The good news is that Belgium is not particularly good at pressing. Algeria and South Korea abandoned any idea of possession pre-game, but a not particularly technical Russian side had exactly as much of the game as Belgium did, with relatively few Aimless Upfield Punts.
Center backs and goalie unsuccessful passes, Russia vs Belgium
The Shin Guardian's take on Belgium's panini game:
Defensively, Belgium claim to be a pressing team but that’s a dangerous description for it. They’ll occasionally go through spells when they’ll press high when commanding the run of play; but, if not, they’ll usually just retreat behind the halfway line and attempt to loosely swarm the ball. <– i.e. not pressing defense. Sampaoli would be mortified.
The first pass or two out of the back will be crucial, especially without Jozy. Bradley should be dropping deep to provide an outlet on the regular.
Fullback offense. The US fullbacks didn't have much impact on the Germany game aside from a couple of slaloming Beasley runs on which Run DMB seemed a decade younger, but this was largely because the US couldn't hold the ball long enough for them to get upfield. Once the US clears Belgium's pressure, the best offense they'll have is their speedy wing backs against the Belgium flanks.
WIN THE GAME. #winthegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES